Goodhue County Sheriff, BCA arrest woman in cold cases for babies found dead in Mississippi River waters
Two babies, both linked to suspect through DNA, were found dead in 1999 and 2003. A newborn boy was found in Lower Boat Harbor in Red Wing, and a newborn girl was found in Lake Pepin.
RED WING — The Goodhue County Sheriff’s Office and the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension said Monday, May 9, 2022, that an arrest has been made in the death of a newborn baby boy who was found deceased in Lake Pepin in 2003 .
According to the BCA, Jennifer Lynn Matter, 50, of Belvidere Township, was identified through DNA as the child’s mother.
The baby boy was discovered dead Dec. 7, 2003, in Lake Pepin at the Methodist Campus Beach in Frontenac.
Earlier, another child — a newborn baby girl — was found dead Nov. 4, 1999, in the Lower Boat Harbor of the Mississippi River near Red Wing. That child was also determined through DNA to be Matter’s child.
Matter is not being charged in connection with that death. Authorities did not immediately explain why she is being charged in connection with one death and not both, but said further charges could be filed.
While exhaustive investigative efforts over the years did not lead to a suspect, a recent effort to learn about the babies’ parentage through genetic genealogy resulted in a lead that ultimately led investigators to Matter.
Investigators obtained a court order to obtain a DNA sample from Matter, and BCA forensic scientists confirmed the match to both children using Rapid DNA technology.
At an emotional press conference Monday morning, Goodhue County Sheriff Marty Kelly noted that the baby girl, whose body was found in 1999, would have been 22 years of age. The boy, whose body was found in 2003, would have likely "just graduated from high school with his whole life ahead of him."
"Many members in our office have come and gone," Kelly said, standing before a line of law enforcement officers and community members at the Goodhue Sheriff's Office. "It is these two cases that have lingered in their minds, in their hearts."
"The tenacity of several investigators in our office to obtain justice for these babies and the perseverance by our community who assisted us in finding answers have led us here today,” Kelly said. “We pray today’s arrest and charges provide some closure to all of those affected."
Goodhue County deputies and BCA agents took Matter into custody at 6:38 a.m. Monday at her Belvidere Township home without incident. She will be arraigned in Goodhue County District Court at 11 a.m. Tuesday.
Matter has been charged via complaint with second-degree murder with intent, not premeditated; and second-degree murder without intent. Matter is currently in the Goodhue County Jail and scheduled to appear in Goodhue County District Court on Tuesday.
Goodhue County Attorney Stephen O'Keefe said while investigators know that Matter is the mother of the 1999 baby, no charges have been filed against Matter "at this time," but he said additional charges may be filed later.
At the time the babies were found, investigators named the 1999 deceased infant girl "Jamie" and the 2003 boy "Cory." A third baby, a newborn girl, was found in 2007 in a marina slip by two workers from Treasure Island Resort and Casino near Red Wing and was named "Abby." That case remains under investigation.
“Genetic genealogy and Rapid DNA testing were both employed to develop a break in the case and then quickly confirm the identity of the babies’ mother,” said BCA Superintendent Drew Evans. “These kinds of scientific advances that can aid investigations are happening all the time. That is why it is so important to never give up on any unsolved case.”
Investigators say DNA samples analyzed by Parabon NanoLabs in Washington, D.C., led to the creation of a "family tree" that directed officers to two persons of interest. In June of 2021, BCA investigators were able to identify the father of the 1999 infant girl. Following up on leads, they in turn determined that Matter was a person of interest.
Goodhue Sheriff Investigator Jon Huneke and Minnesota BCA Special Agent Brittany Carstensen interviewed Matter at her residence April 25, 2022. When asked about her knowledge of the 1999 infant, Matter denied being the mother of the deceased child as well as being pregnant at the time. She declined to volunteer a DNA sample.
Investigators pursued and were granted a search warrant for her DNA sample.
Matter's DNA profile was compared against those of the 1999 and 2003 infants, and a biological link was established between Matter and the two babies.
"Based on the above results, the most conservative estimate indicates that the genetic results obtained from the unidentified female infant are 600 million times more likely to occur in a biological mother of the infant than in someone unrelated to the infant," the report states, according to the press release. "This is very strong evidence to support the biological relationship between Jennifer Lynn Matter and the unidentified female infant as being a biological mother-child relationship."
The results also showed that the 2003 baby was Matter's, as well.
Investigators interviewed Matter again Thursday, May 5, 2022, and asked her what was going on with her life in 1999. She said she was in a bad mental state. She had been in and out of jail, drinking too much and "doing a lot of stupid things."
She stated that she was not aware that she was pregnant and was on her way to drop off her kids, 2 and 5, at school and day care when she started bleeding.
She returned to her home in Red Wing and gave birth in the bathroom. She said the baby was born blue, was not breathing, and was not crying, "so she freaked out."
Matter said she was scared and wrapped the baby in a towel while trying to figure out what to do. One day passed, she estimated, but was not sure because she was drinking heavily. Matter said she drove to Bay Point Park in the middle of the night and put the baby in the water near the boathouses. She said she never told anyone.
Asked by investigators about the second 2003 baby, for which she has been charged with murder, Matter claimed she did not recall a second baby.
Later in the interview, she blurted out that "it was in Frontenac," Goodhue County. She said she was "almost positive" that she was at the public beach when she went into labor. She went to the beach to be alone, because there was an arrest warrant out for her, and she was trying to lay low.
"Matter stated that it was dark outside, it was cold, that she did not look to see the gender of the child, and that she remembered leaving the baby on the beach," the report states.
She said the baby was breathing fine and it may have been crying, but "she didn't remember it." She did not call 911, but hoped that someone in the nearby houses would find the baby.
Matter said she did not go to Frontenac knowing she was in labor, and did not think about or plan to leave the baby somewhere safe. She did not tell anyone about the 2003 baby, "as that was not really something someone would want to talk about."
Performing DNA analysis was expensive for the Goodhue department, which was able to secure funding for the first case. But it turned to the public for financial help in conducting analysis on the 2003 baby and a 2007 baby. Each DNA sample sent to Parabon for analysis cost $5,000, but the department was able to raise the $10,000 within days, a former investigator said.
"Many of us have a sigh of relief ... certainly this morning for the arrest," Kelly said. "I spoke with (previous) sheriffs, and they told me that a day does not go by where they don't think about it."